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Africa's great opportunity to rebalance China trade
Malcolm Ray
Published: 05-DEC-06

Last month’s ministerial forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) in Beijing presents a unique opportunity for African countries to turn around what has been a relationship of two unequally matched powers.

More than 2000 business deals were discussed on the sidelines of the FOCAC summit, among other things, but whether these will be mutually beneficial depends on a number of factors.

At first, the exponential rise in trade volumes between the continent and China, from about $5bn in 1999 to about $40bn last year, is encouraging. No-one can deny that China’s booming economy and growing appetite for raw materials to sustain this growth has been a boon for mineral-enriched African countries.

But while it is convenient these days for African governments to see China as an alternative source of engagement to that of its traditional development partners, they must not overlook the threats that could result in this partnership being exploitative.

First, China’s engagement with the continent has so far been largely extractive. Very few African governments have in fact optimised the revenues to diversify their economies towards manufacturing and services in order to generate sustained growth in the medium term.

The result has been a trade deficit, to Africa’s disadvantage. This leads to a contentious interrelated issue. While FOCAC has committed the two powers to “pragmatic co-operation” and “non-interference in each others’ internal affairs”, this practice has already resulted in an economic engagement that has seen China prop up unsavoury political regimes in politically volatile countries like Zimbabwe and Sudan.

The potential for an escalation of the problem is in the anticipated increase in trade volumes between China and Africa to $100bn by 2010. What’s worrying is the likelihood of unconditional Chinese support for despotic governments in its economic engagements with the continent.

This is certainly not a time for complacency. At issue is whether African leaders will recognise that there are opportunities that can be used to make the Chinese government more receptive to the continent’s democratic and development challenges.

The onus is on African leaders to institutionalise trade relations through bodies like the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) and the African Union. This requires that the continent not only engages China as a unified voice, but engages in a robust discussion on how the continent’s sustainable development programme can be more meaningful.

As the Chinese have rightly conceded, China is not in this to resolve Africa’s internal problems. What matters is the ability of African leaders to shape the terms and direction of the economic engagement in a manner that represents the interests of Africa’s citizenry and not only those of its political and economic elites. -Business in Africa Magazine

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